The ADHD Homestead

Building a good life with ADHD.

Tag: neuroscience

Ditching video games: more than making time & space

Around the turn of the new year, something amazing happened in our house: we got rid of most of our video games. This means less clutter, and I’m excited about the benefits for our family’s energy and willpower.

Mind you, no one really played these games, but my husband wished he could play them. I call this psychic drag, and it’s one reason I love decluttering.

When we hold onto certain kinds of things we don’t use — books, musical instruments, craft supplies, even video games — we don’t just hold onto the thing itself. We hold onto the idea of the thing, and our expectations for how it should be used.

video games

In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, organizing expert Marie Kondo illustrates how excess stuff hinders self-awareness: “We aren’t sure what would satisfy us or what we are looking for. As a result, we increase the number of unnecessary possessions, burying ourselves both physically and mentally in superfluous things.”

Video games usually harbor less emotional baggage than, say, once-cherished musical instruments or a box of old love letters. That makes them a great place to start. Letting go is a learned skill. As we practice (and start reaping the rewards), we get better. We gain confidence to say goodbye to more things, and figure out what we want to make space (and time and money) for.

As Kondo says, “the best way to find out what we really need is to get rid of what we don’t.”

Leaving our willpower in the bank.

Removing temptation from our home — be it video games or candy — also sets us up for success with other challenges.

That’s because willpower is a finite resource, just like money in the bank. As Stanford University professor Kelly McGonigal writes in The Willpower Instinct, “people who use their willpower tend to run out of it.” Dozens of studies have confirmed this. “Trying to control your temper, stick to a budget, or refuse seconds all tap the same source of strength,” explains McGonigal. “Because every act of willpower depletes willpower, using self-control can lead to losing control.”

Knowing this, I don’t bring cable television or candy into our house. Getting rid of the video games was another big step in the right direction.

Visible, easily-accessible temptations give us a choice. Choosing not to indulge spends a precious resource. I’d rather use that self-control elsewhere: not yelling at my kid, for example.

Everyone can benefit from learning about the science of willpower. I’m especially mindful because people with ADHD start with a lower balance in our willpower bank. We can thank the prefrontal cortex: the part of our brain responsible for “controlling what you pay attention to, what you think about, even how you feel.” In the end, it controls what you do.

This area of the brain — the home of our so-called executive functions — is also where ADHD wreaks its havoc.

The big takeaway for me: more than the average family, it’s critical for us to define our priorities, then systematically remove distractions. Remove the option of channel-surfing or using the television as background noise. Remove the option of playing video games instead of board games with friends. Make sugary snacks unavailable. Strive, as much as possible, for a minimalist lifestyle.

Remove temptation, but also clutter, noise, and distraction. Make choosing the right thing just a little easier.

Science, not edicts.

When it comes to managing our household — setting routines, creating the weekly menu, decorating, deciding which possessions may stay and which must go — I try to back up my decisions with brain science. It’s harder to argue with science than a declaration of “I don’t want you wasting time on video games.”

The video games felt like low-hanging fruit: removing temptations and clutter at the same time? That’s what I call making room for what matters. It’s a simple change with a nice payoff, not to mention extra cash in my pocket after I sell them.

How about you? What have you let go of lately? Is it time to say goodbye to something that siphons off your time, money, or willpower?


Drown your ADHD in a hot shower

Do your emotions tend to run away with you?

It’s okay, you can answer silently, but if you often find yourself overwhelmed, embarrassed, confused, or even frightened by your emotions, you’re not alone. At least half of all ADHD adults suffer from deficient emotional self-regulation, defined for the lay person as “excessive emotional reactions to everyday occurences.”

There’s a lot to talk about here, especially in light of the high correlation between ADHD and self-harm.

But before we do, I want you to go take a hot shower.

Yes, I’m serious.

When you’re feeling out of control, stuck, or about to say something you shouldn’t, here are three reasons to climb into the shower and stay there until you feel better — or until the hot water runs out.

  1. Dopamine
    That’s right — your old friend. The safe, relaxing environment of a hot shower triggers a release of dopamine in your brain. One of the “neurochemicals of happiness,” it won’t just make you feel good. It’ll help regulate those wild emotions and calm your impulsive reactions.
  2. Quarantine
    If you just can’t resist the urge to keep crying, complaining, or yelling at your spouse (or whoever happens to be in the room), get away. If you don’t want your spouse to know how much he or she just upset you, take some private time in the shower. Work out your emotions — alone. Once you’re calm, you’ll be better equipped to discuss your feelings productively — or just let them go.
  3. Time
    While you’re out of the fray, everyone has a chance to settle down and change gears. In addition to providing an influx of dopamine, the shower is a great place for productive distraction. You can safely switch out of intense problem-solving mode and get into the right frame of mind for a new insight on the situation.

Do you struggle with out-of-control emotions? What self-soothing techniques can you recommend?


Book Review: Healing ADD from the Inside Out

Daniel Amen's Healing ADD from the Inside OutPsychiatrist Daniel Amen’s work is controversial, to say the least. While Healing ADD from the Inside Out has some good information, readers should also be aware of criticisms from the scientific community.

That said, Dr. Amen provides a valuable perspective on ADHD, coming from a brain science angle that many will find appealing. As his patient anecdotes illustrate, people often open up to treatment after seeing their behavior’s biological roots.

That may be the book’s most important takeawayADHD isn’t a personal failure, it’s a measurable neurological condition.

Common-sense advice for managing ADHD

Readers will also find plenty of common-sense advice. For example: avoid hitting your head and damaging your brain, stay hydrated, eat a healthy diet, and limit TV and video games.

What Amen has to say about head injuries — even minor, forgettable ones — may shock you. Amen Clinics’ doctors ask new patients five times about previous head injuries, even minor ones where the patient never lost consciousness. The degree to which your behavior and personality can change as a result of a bump on the head is startling, and certainly makes me glad I wear a helmet when I ski.

My biggest criticism of Dr. Amen’s lifestyle advice is its severity. He recommends some pretty radical diet changes — for example, eliminating sugar and bread. Don’t get me wrong, I agree refined sugar is terrible for you, but strict elimination diets feel out of reach for a lot of people. I’ve benefited from drastically reducing refined sugar and switching in whole grains whenever possible. Dr. Amen overlooks the benefits of eating brown rice and whole grain breads and pastas for those who aren’t willing to give them up entirely.

Though Dr. Amen’s five ADHD subtypes haven’t been adopted by the scientific community, I found them useful to illustrate the point that every ADHD case — and every treatment plan — is different. Managing ADHD symptoms takes some finesse, not just a quick evaluation and a prescription for stimulants.

SPECT imaging and supplements: buyer beware

Beware, though: Healing ADD focuses heavily on the Amen Clinics’ treatment and diagnostic methods, which cannot be replicated at home or at your local doctor’s office. After reading Healing ADD, it’s easy to convince yourself you’re at the mercy of your brain until you get one of these SPECT imaging scans — especially if you’ve been frustrated by past treatment failures.

However, the Amen Clinics are alone in their use of SPECT imaging in routine diagnosis, and most of the scientific community feels there’s a good reason for that. Bottom line: you don’t need to travel to one of these clinics and pay over $3000 to get better.

Parts of the book also felt more like an advertisement for the Amen Clinics’ products and services than a standalone self-help text. The techniques and advice seem broad and cursory, like Healing ADD is only an introduction to the whole system: DVDs, supplements, an online brain gym, and consultation at a brick-and-mortar Amen Clinic.

Comprehensive but not warm and fuzzy

Healing ADD may pack a lot of advice and brain science, but it won’t feel warm and personable. If you want that, read Wes Crenshaw’s I Always Want to be Where I’m Not. Dr. Amen kicks off Part One by trying to build rapport with readers and prove he truly understands ADHD on a personal level, but he does it by talking about how guilty and embarrassed his ADHD family members make him feel. Maybe this rings true for some readers, but I didn’t need any reminders.

Overall, Healing ADD is worth a read for many people, especially those who doubt ADHD’s biological roots or have complex cases not aided by typical treatment approaches. The book inspired me to try a daily GABA supplement, and I do think it has helped tone down my migraines and mood issues. Certainly it’s a great starter resource for those interested in alternative or complementary therapies.

If you’re looking for in-depth techniques and help for any single facet of ADHD, though, Dr. Amen covers way too much ground for that. For example, the chapter on stopping “automatic negative thoughts” offers a gold mine of easier-said-than-done advice. If you’re truly struggling with these harmful thought patterns, you’ll need to seek professional help.

And that’s okay. Healing ADD provides, at the very least, a comprehensive guide to what you should expect to hear from a therapist or coach (minus the need for SPECT imaging). There’s plenty of bad information out there, and Dr. Amen goes a long way to cultivate educated consumers in his readers.


The power of split-second mindfulness

While writing my cool ADHD mom post last week, I found several pages of tips for us ADHD parents.

However, as I opened tab after tab in my browser, I noticed a gaping hole. Enough with the cleaning and organizing tips. What about those larger-than-life emotions?

Some people go so far as to claim ADHD helps us create a loving, nurturing, exciting home life for our children. No parent needs ADHD to do that. I worry about subjecting my kid to the less romantic side of my ADHD: inconsistency, unpredictability, impatience, and a tendency to lose my temper.

And let’s be honest: nobody knows how to push our buttons like our kids, even if they don’t mean to (most of the time). Even the most put-together, mild-mannered parents will confess to all kinds of temper tantrums in their moments of weakness.

Often we feel our self-control slipping moments before a meltdown, yet we feel powerless to stop it.

I won’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve had my share of emotional outbursts. Reigning them in has been a pet project since I started the sixth grade.

Today I want to share one quick, tiny, simple trick to help get yourself under control.

It’s called mindfulness.

I’ve mentioned mindfulness meditation as a critical brain-training practice before, but don’t assume the benefits start and end with a a five-minute-a-day habit. Even if you never sit down to meditate, you can stop emotional outbursts in their tracks with mindfulness.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Pause. Use your five senses to identify one thing in the room to focus on. Examples: your computer’s fan sound, the feel of a cool glass of water in your hand, a nice whiff from a jar of coffee beans. I’m most sensitive to sound, so I find something to listen to.
  2. Focus on that sensory input for 15 seconds, or as long as you can manage depending on the crisis. I like to close my eyes.
  3. If you notice your mind wandering to anything else — how angry you are at your kid for using permanent marker on the wall, the laundry you forgot to put in the dryer, a funny text you received from a friend, etc. — don’t give up and don’t judge yourself. Just return your full attention to that sound, smell, or sensation. Try your best to keep your mind empty.
  4. Open your eyes. Lower your voice. Try to deal.

That’s it. Try it now, while you have a moment and the stakes are low. What do you notice? Does it feel a bit like you’re in the eye of a hurricane?

Sometimes, that’s exactly what we need.

Shifting from your brain’s narrative circuitry to a state of mindfulness — a heightened awareness of sensory input from the outside world — forces your brain to change gears. Different brain regions become active and your prefrontal cortex takes a rest. You become more aware of your own inner state, which in turn gives you more control over your thoughts and actions. If you want to learn more about this without getting bogged down in too much science talk, check out David Rock’s Your Brain at Work.

Don’t forget to practice mindfulness with your kids, too! While sitting with my son during a recent emotional meltdown — being two isn’t easy, you know — I started talking to him about the sounds in the room. I took advantage of a short break in his tears to ask him, “can you hear the clock ticking? Tock, tock, tock, tock…” He met my eye and whimpered, “yeah.” I brought his attention to the wind who-whooo-ing outside his window. We sat together in lovely silence, just listening.

Quelling tantrums helps you in the moment, but teaching your kids to be mindful gives them tools to observe and regulate their own emotions later in life.

Next time you feel your self-control checking out, try a few seconds of mindfulness to step away from your mental noise. Then, share your experience in the comments so we can learn from one another.


Book Review: Your Brain at Work

Your Brain at Work cover imageWant to learn more about your brain’s natural limitations — and how to work around them?

David Rock‘s Your Brain at Work is the book for you.

While our household loves what I call “recreational neuroscience reading,”  the genius of Rock’s book is its accessibility: no nerd cred required. He makes learning about the brain feel both exciting and practical through fun, easy-to-parse language. While ADHD is not mentioned specifically, ADHD’ers will receive game-changing insights into why we behave like we do.

Your Brain at Work employs a theatre metaphor to explain the core concepts. Each chapter opens with a new scene featuring a fictional couple, Emily and Paul, as they navigate various professional and personal challenges. Take One shows Emily and Paul faltering and escalating interpersonal situations to the point of near disaster. Rock walks us through the hows and whys of these failures using theatre language — actors, stage, lights, director — to turn neuroscience into a subject anyone can readily understand. Take Two applies what we’ve learned, portraying Emily and Paul putting their brains to work for a confidence-boosting personal victory.

Despite not mentioning ADHD, Rock seems to have written Your Brain at Work with us in mind. Not only does the theatre metaphor make the subject matter fun and easy to digest, the book is exceptionally well-organized. Rock opens by outlining what we can expect to learn, making it easier to direct our focus. We enter each chapter with a clear idea of what it’ll be about and wrap it up with a nice conclusion at the end.

Your Brain at Work is a critically important read for ADHD adults. The more we know about the human brain’s limitations — and Rock hits on many ADHD sore spots — the easier it is to work around them.

My husband read Your Brain at Work, too, and it gave us new language to navigate challenging conversations. Of the theatre metaphor, he told me, “I hope you’ll use it to tell me when you notice things — like if I have too many actors on my stage.” After attempting (unsuccessfully) to win me over in a disagreement, he later said, “I should never have tried to sell you on that. As soon as I started talking about it, I could tell you were in an away state.”

Don’t know what we’re talking about? You will, and even if it only provides hindsight after an argument, that’s progress.

Rock shows us again and again that with enough brain savvy, we can salvage interactions even after they’ve crashed and burned. Most chapters’ Take One scenes jump off from the previous Take One — not the rosier Take Two. We see Emily and Paul reflecting on what went wrong, then summoning the wherewithal to do better in the next round.

Perhaps most valuable of all, Your Brain at Work introduces pragmatism to highly charged interactions. This helps us puzzle out why we drive others (and ourselves) crazy, and vice versa. We can use this knowledge to communicate reasonably and calmly.

Rock’s techniques and suggestions are a gold mine on their own, but we can read between the lines to understand why others do what they do — and why their behavior affects us like it does.

While the fussiness of the prefrontal cortex, among other things, can make Your Brain at Work feel like a depressing reminder of our deficiencies, it also empowers us to make the most of the resources we have. As we travel through the day with Emily and Paul, we learn to spot tipping points moment by moment. It’ll never feel easy, but Rock gives us hope that a few small changes and a little more knowledge will make it much less hard.


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